A conversation with Robin Kahn

Portrait of Robin Kahn in New York City, 2012 © by Chrysanne Stathacos

SUSAN:

First, I would like you to tell us how you came to be in dOCUMENTA (13), because it is a lovely story.

ROBIN:

My journey started in 2009 when I participated in ARTifariti, an “art and human rights” festival that takes place in the Tindouf Refugee Camps in Algeria, where two thirds of the population of Western Sahara have been living in exile since 1975. I learned about the festival from Federico Guzmán (with whom Kirby and I have worked collaboratively on various projects over the past 20 years) who was writing a blog about his experiences in the camps the year before. Looking at his photos and reading about the recent history of the country, all of a sudden I stopped and thought: “Wait a minute. I’m an educated person, why have I never heard anything about this place, the Sahrawi people, and their ongoing struggle for independence?” I’m talking about a country in North Africa on the Atlantic coast that was illegally occupied 38 years ago by the kingdom of Morocco. Obviously there are a lot of legal questions involved but basically during Spain’s withdrawal from the territory (formerly called Spanish Sahara), Morocco invaded by dropping bombs and napalm on the defenseless population.  The Sahrawi men remained at the front to fight off their aggressors while the women led the oldest and youngest members to safety across the Saharan desert into Algeria, where they have been living as refugees ever since.

When Federico was telling me about his experience, I realized, wow, I really want to learn about this myself and not hear about the political situation as UN statistics about war and peace. So I wrote a proposal to go to the five camps and live with a family in each, to prepare meals with the women in their kitchens and eat with their families and just by hanging out in their daily routine, I would get to hear their stories about what happened in this country and what this crisis is from the people themselves, particularly the women. My idea was to create a project about cooking, something that I do everyday at home—a shared language—to compile their women’s recipes, stories and memories into a book that describes not only their dishes but also how they have built their lives and kept hope alive in this extreme situation of occupation, war and exile.

Making couscous in the camps, 2009 © by Robin Kahn

When I went to the camps and I had this experience that was like nothing I’ve ever had before. It’s a completely matriarchal society there. The women built everything—all of the infrastructure: the buildings, an educational system where there is 99% literacy. They wrote a constitution-in-exile in 1976 guaranteeing women’s equal rights, and this is in a Muslim country! So, what we as Americans think of Muslim women was completely turned on its head for me. What I experienced was a truly cooperative society, even though it is a society-in-exile. The women work in a way that is really interesting.  They have formed cooperatives to organize and oversee all aspects of the educational, cultural, political and family life in the camps.   Each cooperative has a distinct role to play that can only work in relationship to how it is serviced by and how it services the people at the same time.

I’ve always tried to design projects that engage people and grow beyond my own authorship. It is the sum total of everybody’s engagement and interaction that creates a truly collaborative project.  And so when I went to the camps and I lived with families and I got to know them, I was truly amazed by the success of the women’s structured cooperation. They are living in the hottest part of the Sahara where no food can grow and they have to, not only to feed their people, but also keep Sahrawi tradition, culture, and history alive for their children who were born there and have never set foot in their own homeland, in their own country.  The Sahrawi people are patriotic, proud and happy in this unbridled way that—I mean, it’s a very complicated question—but their sense of purpose, creativity, intelligence, and effort are all directed toward and motivated by one common goal—survival. Every effort is a total commitment.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about in terms of food. I followed the women when they would pick up supplies from humanitarian aid announced that day on posters at the main square.  A monthly ration of flour or onions would be dropped out of trucks at a specific time and place. They would help each other carry these huge bags of provisions to each other’s homes.  If one person had a sore leg, then her neighbors would assume the responsibility without hesitation. In my home in Camp 27, my hostess Salma Ali had a wounded arm and couldn’t make bread in the morning, so her friend Galia made two loaves every morning—one for her family and one for us … and that’s just the way it is.

Tent for dOCUMENTA (13) made in the camps, 2011
© by Robin Kahn

Each family is issued a standard UN white tent. So from the outside, they all look the same. But once you go inside, each home is so unique, so colorful and comfortable, and all handmade! Consistent with their Berber origin, this tent or “Jaima” functions as the center of family life. This is where everyone takes their meals together, which is a very long time honored process. It begins with a long tea ceremony where, in between multiple brewings, you relax, play or enjoy music. Then large plates of food arrive. As you share various inventive and delicious dishes, you start talking about who you are and they start telling you their story. In between helpings, you might break off into smaller conversations or grab a pillow and take a nap.

Many times when I arrived at people’s houses, I was asked, “Would you like to take a shower?” The first time, I thought, “Why, am I smelly?” But actually you are so hot, it’s 102 degrees everyday.  The “bathroom” is a small anteroom with no plumbing but what they are offering you is—just to go into this dark cool private space and take a bucket of water and pour it over your head and put your clothes back on and feel rejuvenated when you rejoin the group. So I did that and I understood. This is the kind of Sahrawi hospitality that has welcomed strangers into the fold for centuries and it is still operative—it’s a cultural tradition about bringing people together.  And through rituals like this you get to know each other. That is how I learned about the Sahrawi people—about their history, their culture, and the nature of their struggle today.

SUSAN:

So, do you think this tradition developed there, in the camp?

ROBIN:

I think they are nurtured there, but they come from the memories of little girls who are now the matriarchs, who are my age and older, who escaped.

CHRYSANNE:

Were they a nomadic culture?

ROBIN:

Yes, they were originally a nomadic culture made up of tribes. European colonial powers in the mid-1880’s set up the Western Sahara and above it is the French colony of Morocco. So the Moroccans do have an argument that they were in there earlier too because the lines were arbitrarily drawn. But the thing is the Moroccans inherited their country as it was inscribed at the time of independence and now they have illegally occupied the country of Western Sahara so where are the Sahrawis supposed to live?

video ©2013 by MOMMY

CHRYSANNE:

So the French drew those borders?

ROBIN:

No, colonization was a complicated European initiative. The Sahrawi people are Berbers, Saharan Africans and Arabs. In the camps today, there is a real mixture of colors, cultures and histories all living together as families. It’s as close to a society in terms of mixing that I’ve experienced as New York. Being a mom of color, which I am, because I’ve adopted a daughter who is African-American, when we travel I am very conscious of how she is going to feel and be treated in a new community. In this Sahrawi culture, here in the middle of the desert, the people have so many different stories about how they became a family.  A mom might introduce her family to you and there are six daughters and they’re all different colors and that’s just the way it is.

SUSAN:

And one product of your day to day experience with these women was a cookbook?

The first panel at the installation entrance to the tent at dOCUMENTA (13), 2012
© by Robin Kahn

ROBIN:

Yes. I created Dining in Refugee Camps, The Art of Sahrawi Cooking in the camps in 2009 and brought it back to NYC with the idea of approaching NGOs to fund its publication. That’s a new community for me, because I am used to working strictly within the art community, but I wanted to get this project beyond that sphere. But each NGO told me the same thing: “This is beautiful, this is really about empowerment and visibility but Western Sahara is not on our list.” “What do you mean? These people who have been living in camps for 38 years are not are your list?” “Well, America doesn’t actually support the Western Sahara Cause, so we can not give you funding.” So that negative reaction is what sent me running to the anarchist publishing collective autonomedia where Jim Fleming heartily agreed that is was a very important project to support. Let Anarchism Rule the Day!

“Dining in Refugee Camps,” 2009 Design by Robin Kahn,
photo credit Jim Fleming

And to top this good deed off, Jim then gave a copy of my book to another member of the autonomedia collective, the anarcultural writer and mystic philosopher, Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey) , who was to conjure the prophetic dream that would soon land me at dOCUMENTA. A few days after he read my publication, he had lunch with the exhibition’s Creative Director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and he told her that the night he had finished reading my “cookbook-in-solidarity with the people of Western Sahara,” he dreamt that Sahrawi women were cooking couscous in Kassel…and the rest is The Dream Come True!

Making couscous at dOCUMENTA (13), 2012 photo credit Kirby Gookin

Peter called and left a message on my answering machine introducing himself and asking,  “Would you like to be in dOCUMENTA?” Insane…but it’s great. So I’ve travelled from the middle of Manhattan to the furthest, most invisible place imaginable—refugee camps in the hottest part of the Algerian desert—and reappeared in the dream state of dOCUMENTA .

Peter and I worked together on generating the ideological structure of the piece. My friend, the anthropologist  Mick Taussig, an advisor to the exhibition, was instrumental in supporting the project too AND he wrote a great catalogue essay about it.. I thought:  “If I’m invited, no way can I do a project about a Sahrawi cookbook that doesn’t involve people from Western Sahara.”  So I went back to the camps in 2011 and I met with the women’s cooperatives that run the five camps and told them about the invitation and we came up with the idea of an installation that would center around a tent (or Jaima), a typical Sahrawi home made by women in the camps. We would transport a home-in-exile from Algeria to the Karlsruhe Park in Kassel as a symbol of peaceful refuge and see how it can interact with the environment.

June 4, 2012 Sahrawi women raising the tent at dOCUMENTA (13)
photo credit Kirby Gookin

I worked for a whole year on the plans and designs. I was able to bring eight women who were born in the refugee camps to Kassel. First of all, they are the only ones who could put up the tent, which totally amazed the installation crew at dOCUMENTA. After it was raised, we filled it with brightly patterned cushions, rugs and pillows. Adjacent to the tent, we set up a cooking area built around a food vending truck. In order to enter the installation, the visitor had to first pass through a maze of billboard sized collages that I created in the style of the cookbook’s pages, each one introducing a new concept about Western Sahara: its history of war and occupation, the establishment of the camps by the women, the role that food plays, and the strategy of using hospitality as an introduction to the conflict.

When dOCUMENTA opened there were just hundreds of people coming through the installation. They would walk through the maze of collages, reading the info and then arrive at the tent’s entrance where they received a palm-sized bowl of delicious couscous. They then would walk into the tent’s beautiful lush setting, sit down and enjoy a bite to eat, and a conversation about their experience with women from Western Sahara.

Bowls of couscous at dOCUMENTA (13), photo credit Nils Klinger

During the first few weeks, the tent was covered with hand-stitched tarps to protect it from the non-stop rain. The dOCUMENTA staff had originally promised me that their technical team would engineer “a whole water-proofing system.” So for the 15 days of installation, I kept saying: “Well, we need to erect it now…so we can set up.” “Oh yes, we know. You need to trust us.” And wouldn’t you know it, the night before the opening, we were still with no covering. So I went out and bought these huge black tarps that looked like garbage bags and the women hand stitched them together and we threw that over the white tent.  Then the women could finally raise it and within moments, we were able to set up the carpets, the mattresses and pillows, so that the women could inhabit the space and make it as comfortable and inviting as in their culture.

Painting the tarp together, 2012 photo credit Alonso Gil

SUSAN:

Did they live in the tent for the duration of the exhibition?

ROBIN:

Only from 10 a.m. to 8pm. dOCUMENTA would not allow anyone to sleep there. So I rented apartments for our whole gang. The women were all able to stay together in one enormous loft room similar to tent living in the camps.

CHRYSANNE:

Was there a reason?

ROBIN:

Yes, insurance. There were so many rules, it took me a year of just crossing t’s and dotting i’s, and filling out copies of forms of original. Then when I arrived in Germany for the installation, there were new rules. But I realized that this is the infrastructure of the culture. They use the excuse of protocol to appear in control, but the truth is that they are just as disorganized as any other culture. In the end I realized the only way to be ready for the opening was to break all the rules. Just do what you want to do because with all of their assurances, they really didn’t have so many things that they had promised me and it was the only way to make the best project possible.

SUSAN:

So you could break some promises too?

ROBIN:

Yeah. Can you believe this?  We were supposed to have running water and electricity, but it didn’t work—in fact some town inspector condemned the kitchen truck as an unsafe facility for cooking, so we had to have these plastic cubes of water brought in with a hose that you would suck the air out of so you could get the water to run into buckets. It was just so unbelievably primitive in that way. But fortuitous, because all of those things made the experience more similar to what I had experienced in the camps and to what had engaged me about being in the homes of these women and being a part of the meal and what that meal is.

CHRYSANNE:

How did the women feel about being in dOCUMENTA?

ROBIN:

Well, first of all, they said, “This is such a vacation.” When I said: “I’m so sorry you have to hand sew this tarp.” Basically, they were like: “Are you kidding? An art installation…. It’s a breeze.” They had a blast. And this was great. They arrived wearing these psychedelically patterned robes called melfas, which are their traditional Muslim dress. Basically all of the artists arrived at the same time and none of us knew who else was going to exhibit there. It’s the first day of the installation and the other artists and installers are skulking around in black clothing. We all converge on the commissary together around noon to eat lunch. In walk these elated women, dressed in brightly colored Muslim garb, who are chattering away, filling their trays with food, and just hanging out forever, commenting on their surroundings in Arabic. And I can hear every artist asking, “Who are those women?” So, in effect, they announced the project in this beautiful way.

Friends and family who put together the tent at dOCUMENTA (13)
photo credit Edi Escobar

SUSAN:

How were you communicating with them? What language were you speaking?

ROBIN:

Spanish. Because Western Sahara was a former Spanish colony.

SUSAN:

So, they speak Spanish and you speak Spanish?

ROBIN:

I speak Spanish and they speak Spanish, they speak French, because a lot of them grew up in Mauritania, which is now an ally, and Algeria too. I made sure that each woman could speak either German, French or English (in addition to Spanish and Arabic) so that they could have conversations with the public.  That was a premise of the piece. You enjoy some couscous in exchange for a conversation with the women about Western Sahara.

SUSAN:

Did they look at the rest of dOCUMENTA or were they always in the tent? Would the other exhibitions have meant something to them or were they mostly focused on their installation?

ROBIN:

Getting the word out about Western Sahara was paramount to our group. Here’s an example of how a simple exchange generated a spontaneous and amazing event. The Sahrawi Minister of Culture, Khadija Hamdi was there from the camps. The artist Issa Samb, along with his group from Senegal came for tea in our tent and then went back to his installation and returned with a gift of the Senegalese flag that he offered to her in solidarity with the people of Western Sahara. The Minister stood up and in French made a speech about how culture and art have the power to transcend boundaries in a way that does not exist in the political arena. It was so beautiful. And so later on, in exchange, I heard that she visited Samb’s installation with some of the other women and brought them the Polisario flag (the Sahrawi government-in-exile).

Issa Samb and Khadija Hamdi pledge allegiance between Senegal and
Western Sahara, photo credit Kirby Gookin

SUSAN:

How did the women assess their experience there?

ROBIN:

I am in contact with all of them all the time now. They’re my sisters and they had a great time. What they wanted to do was to enhance visibility about who they are and what their struggle is on an international level. By the end of dOCUMENTA, 875,000 people came through and a lot of them visited our tent many times because they were really comfortable there. They could get away from the “art exhibition” vibe and hang out, and have tea, hear music, and engage each other. So we really created a hot spot.

Overview of the installation “The Art of Sahrawi Cooking” at dOCUMENTA (13)
photo credit Nils Klinger

CHRYSANNE:

Would you like them to come to New York?

ROBIN:

Yes. I’ve been advocating for them. In fact, three weeks ago, I was invited by them to speak to the UN General Assembly at a Special Committee Meeting on Decolonization. I talked about my experience in the camps and about working with the Sahrawi women to make their cause more visible. I urged the delegates to pressure the UN to create a mandate protecting the people’s human rights and also for the global community to raise its voice in support of the Sahrawis’ legal right to self-determination.

SUSAN:

How did people coming into the tent react?

ROBIN:

I got all sorts of reactions, mostly very positive. But to those who sought me out to criticize the installation, I always asked, “Have you been in the tent yet?”

CHRYSANNE:

How would they criticize you?

ROBIN:

“Oh, don’t you think you are making a spectacle of these people?” or ”Oh, you’re putting these people in a cage and then saying look at them, they are so special and so different.” And I am not doing that. The whole essence of this project was engagement.

CHRYSANNE:

So they were approaching it from the point of view of Orientalism?

ROBIN:

They were talking about the 19th century approach to creating World’s Fair spectacles, but the project was not about “defining the other,” it was about “engagement.” I was actually very aware that I might get criticism from armchair philosophers. I had many conversations with Mick and Peter about just that. Finally Mick said: “You know what Robin, this is you. You love this. You built this project out of cooking and your sense of collaboration and how you define art and your kinship with these women.” Lets face it, hundreds of artists participated in ARTifariti but I continued that work after I left because it really means something to me and that’s what I wanted to extend in the form of art at dOCUMENTA.

SUSAN:

Now that we are talking about this, I want to read into the interview two excerpts that appeared in a thread on your facebook page while you were actually at dOCUMENTA, because I am struck by the fact that we often learn a critical paradigm that is extremely useful as an analytical tool and we accept it going forward without reservation and then over time apply it to situations that we don’t look at carefully enough and we fail to examine whether the paradigm is still useful or if it any longer applies to the situation we are applying it to.

The thread begins with a comment from Emma Zghal who wrote in precisely the kind of criticism we are talking about:

I have reservations on the natives displayed to visitors in their “exotic” tent and clothing as an expression of solidarity! It strikes me as the current incarnation of the 19th century Orientalism. So instead projecting all sorts of sexual fantasies, Westerners relish in their pity and guilt as a way to relate to the other. In my experience as a “native” among the well to do art types, this way of seeing the other is a far cry from respect. In many instances such imagery only comforts a harmful sense of superiority.

I think in this case the critical paradigm is coming from Edward Said, whose Orientalism was published in 1978, and which is certainly still applicable to certain current problems, particularly in our relationship to the Middle East, but it is assumed here that this paradigm can be placed neatly on top of your tent, and I think it is important to get across why this tent did not function in this way.

Tent interior, dOCUMENTA (13) photo credit Edi Escobar

ROBIN:

The installation was predicated on engagement, exchange and interaction. You had to be there to have this experience. The atmosphere was in constant flux, changing with the arrival of each new visitor. Nobody was interested in force feeding a specific interpretation, instead what was being offered was a dose of hospitality, a peaceful refuge that was completely surprising in the context of art: a very welcoming environment constructed by hand in the camps completely by the women. It was about the political power that Sahrawi hospitality carries as peaceful strategy for engaging people, offering them the opportunity to think, to converse, to rest, to react…

SUSAN:

This is how Octavio Zaya responded to Emma’s comments on the facebook thread:

Did you get to engage the Sahrawis there, Emma? Did you get to talk to them about the historical information displayed in the corridor that preceded the tent: Did you meet the Minister of Culture of Western Sahara who visited the place, or the representatives of Polisario Front? Did you partake of the couscous and tea the National Union of Women from Western Sahara offered to all the visitors with whom they engaged in conversation? This presentation was not an exotic display, nor a projection of sexual fantasies, but an opportunity to address and discuss the plight of Sahrawi people, and their struggle for independence. It is not about pity and about guilt, Emma. It is about misinformation, Western oblivion, and an opportunity to correct them.

Couscous and Conversation at “The Art of Sahrawi Cooking” dOCUMENTA (13)
photo credit Kirby Gookin

I wonder if a more useful critical discourse to frame your project with these women might be taken from the work done at end of Michel Foucault’s life; the point when he begins to talk about living one’s life as an art form, because it sounds from your descriptions as if that is what these women do.

ROBIN:

Yes, I make no distinction between life and art. Every act is intentional and that is what I experienced in the camps. The cooking is better than anything you make, the music sweeter, the homes more comfortable, the conversation deeper. There is an economy of means that is deliberate, finite and intentional. I truly appreciate that. I am consistently amazed by my friends’ capacity to react with genuine spontaneity. In an instant, singing and dancing is generated from clapping. It is so unusual to be in the middle of that experience as opposed to fielding questions from those who arrive with their catalogues open, asking:  “Wait, this isn’t in the schedule. What are we seeing now?”

Tfarra, Najat, and Mouna dancing, 2012 photo credit Kirby Gookin

Okay, if you want to read my project as propaganda, you can read it any way you want. I am not stuffing how you read this down your throat. I am presenting a project that is an extension of everything that I’ve ever done and for me—the personal is political. I mean, there is no distinction whatsoever. If you want to criticize it and especially if you want to sit there and write about it in the public domain, you should at least experience it.

Ezzana pouring tea, 2012 photo credit Emily Nathan,
ArtNet magazine

When someone asked me, “Is this propaganda?” I always asked them, “Have you been in the tent?” And they said,  “No.” And so I said:  “Well, go in the tent and if you still have that question afterward, I’d love to engage with you.” Not one person came back. Not one.

Information panels at the entrance to the installation/tent at dOCUMENTA(13)
photo credit Nils Klinger

I’ve done many projects and all of my work deals with women’s issues, empowering women, making their work visible, working with women across boundaries and barriers and race and culture, doing large scale projects that are about that and also all my own studio work is about that.  And the way I conduct myself, as a mother, as a partner in life, as a student of life, as a matron, as a cook—all the roles that a mother has, that a woman has in society, I assume those all in my work and every day and in every breath I take.

SUSAN:

Before we move on to talking about your earlier work, I do have one more question. This society that you describe is a matriarchy, so what are the men doing?

ROBIN:

That’s a really good question. So it happened that the men stayed on the front to fight in the beginning. Well, there has been a cease-fire since 1991 and since then everyone has been waiting for the UN to broker what’s going to happen.  Which is great, but if the UN doesn’t do anything then Morocco will stay in there. So the men keep training for the military but when they return to the camps, they are really bored and they let the women do all the work.

SUSAN:

I’ve seen this in other places too.

ROBIN:

So, it’s an issue.

CHRYSANNE:

When Susan and I first talked to you about this at the New York Art Book Fair you told us a story about what happened when you first arrived at dOCUMENTA.

ROBIN:

Yes. This was a personal experience that transpired in February when I was going to Kassel for the first time. dOCUMENTA opens in June, so I was going there to figure out where my site was going to be and have all the meetings that I needed to have with the various production teams (i.e., installation, publication, education etc…). So I was picked up at the Frankfurt airport by the person assigned to oversee my project and as we were driving to Kassel, she said,  “Robin, I have a surprise for you.” So, I’m thinking: “Oh, is there going to be a party? Balloons or a cake?” And she says: “Well, Carolyn (the Director) wants every artist to go to Breitanau, the concentration camp right outside of Kassel. Wait a minute, I didn’t even know what the theme of dOCUMENTA was or who the artists were. I was working on my own project and that’s all I knew and the idea that I needed to go to—it was a re-education camp that then filtered people into the concentration camps—was a perfectly horrible situation and I burst into tears. I’m a Jewish woman, whose family has never visited Germany and I firmly believe that it is my choice if I ever want to go to a concentration camp. I don’t need someone telling me, “This is one of your requirements.” I asked if there was some specific message, a piece of writing that would explain this motive but there was none. So I said that I was going to get really upset and that I’d go if she really wanted to bring me there but I didn’t know what I would do.

So we arrive there and this guy, the Director of Breitanau, takes us around the facility and he’s telling me its pre-WWII history as a re-education camp for vagrants and prostitutes, where offenders would be imprisoned for two years so that they could become “more constructive citizens when they were re-introduced into society.” And my response was: “Are you kidding me? Don’t tell me that the prison guards weren’t fucking the prostitutes for those years that they had them behind bars. I mean, what are you talking about? Explain to me what re-education means? This is a crime.” At which point, my assistant asked me, “Have you had enough?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And so, that was that.

SUSAN:

The one other question about dOCUMENTA I would like to explore is the debacle over the return of the tent. I just find it surprising that this is not being taken care of by them.

ROBIN:

Look, this was a hugely ambitious project. I was the least known artist at dOCUMENTA, way low on the totem pole and my budget didn’t cover even close to the cost of the project.  I had to raise money and put my own money in. I’ve spent the last three months since I returned in September negotiating the return of the installation because I would love to create some incarnation of the project that could travel around America. That would be great.

CHRYSANNE:

I would like to go back to the early ‘90’s. I was introduced to you by Anne Pasternak when Kathe Burkhart and I did The Abortion Project. Susan actually introduced me to Kathe, so we are all sort of sisters. I remember when The Abortion Project went to Real Art Ways, both you and Susan had works in the project. I always have loved the big fabric pieces with the embroidered IUDs that you showed at Andrea Rosen Gallery. I wanted to know if you want to speak about that early work a little bit and about how that informed the collaborative projects. I really feel like our connection, actually the three of us, has been as artists, as feminists and political activists. So anything you’d like to say….

Portrait of Fidelity with IUD, 1995 © by Robin Kahn

ROBIN:

Yeah. We are sisters from way back and have re-met up in different incarnations throughout the years—collaborating together, exhibiting side by side or even sometimes brainstorming together.

My work in the 1990’s was largely images embroidered on fabric, on pinstripe. I was exploring cultural expressions of vanity and issues of power, both male and female.  At some point after grad school, I just stopped painting because who wants to imbue a white canvas with meaning when every minute of the day is filled with it? I mean my inner dialogue or internal conversation is always disrupted with thoughts about: “What am I going to make for dinner?, Have the kids done their homework?, Where is the birthday party happening the day after tomorrow?” And so, I started working with fabrics as canvas because those are materials that intrinsically carry meaning. I went to the fashion district to find out about sewing and met all these Jewish people who talked about the social vocabulary of the pinstripe pattern. Fantastic! I took that clue as the key to my path as an artist. How do I express or define myself as a Jew, a woman, an urbanite, an artist? And I began to concentrate on decoding the images from popular culture that express power, vanity or the loss thereof; the invisibility of women’s work, all of those things that are ingrained, but not necessarily as art. And that became the subject of my work.

At some point thereafter, I realized that my work was being included in exhibitions because it represented the “woman’s perspective.” I mean, “What’s that?” I can’t speak for anyone but myself. So I decided to start making more open-ended projects. I had the idea of making publications where I could invited my friends and they in turn could invite their friends to participate.  And that process began to make our community much larger and to make our discreet ideas resonate beyond the very elite circle of gallery dwellers. In 1992, I put together Special Issue, a recipe manual that had nothing to do with food and then Promotional Copy, a yellow pages of the artist community, where I invited anybody who identified as an artist to design one or two promotional pages about their projects.Then in 1995, I put together Time Capsule: A Concise Encyclopedia by Women Artists that was distributed to every delegate at the International Women’s Conference in Beijing.

Time Capsule, 1995 © by Robin Kahn

CHRYSANNE:

Was that done by Creative Time?

ROBIN:

Creative Time co-produced it with SOS INT’l. It was their first publication-as-public space.

CHRYSANNE:

I also remember that you did a performance at the Guggenheim when it was in Soho.

ROBIN:

After Special Issue, I was approached by D.A.P. who began to distribute my publications (they have been very supportive throughout the years) and because of their relationship with the Guggenheim Downtown l got to use the museum’s lobby space for one night for the Promotional Copy publication party. So I conceived of the idea that the museum should function as a doormat to the street—you wipe your feet at the Guggenheim’s entrance, you get your book and then exit onto Mercer Street where are all these different artists and activists and neighborhood people would be painting, juggling, fortune telling and inviting you over to engage with them.  So the street , not the museum, really was the focus of the event.  I also invited a lot of friends who are artists to make interactive projects in the lobby space—to introduce their projects, sort of “promote” themselves as a part of the party. Chrysanne, you participated.

Promotional Copy, 1993 © by Robin Kahn

CHRYSANNE:

Yes, for Promotional Party Publication Party, I had a small printing press and I printed rose petals in honor of my friend Rob Flack, who died of AIDS and I gave them out in his memory. I still have some. So after Time Capsule, you published, and I have a number of them, a very beautiful series of artist books.

ROBIN:

Yes, afterwards I published a series of my own artist books.  There’s The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Art, where I reworked an actual manual of the same title that had been that written by a New York Times Arts Editor.  Can you believe it? He made a book for women about art and didn’t put any women artists it. So I thought, “This is really ridiculous.”  So I just covered over his name as author and replaced it with my name, and added my images to the pages and wrote this concrete poem naming/listing a selection of women artists who should have been included..

The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Art, 2005 © by Robin Kahn

SUSAN:

How do you see publishing as an artist vs. exhibiting as an artist?

ROBIN:

Publishing is not really the word. Editing is what I do. I come up with a concept and I invite people and then they riff on the concept. But I conceive of the structure or framework and that’s a very creative endeavor. I really enjoy it. I also have put together lots of shows that are in untraditional settings, inviting artists to do things that they wouldn’t regularly do, like making ephemeral art or making a multiple that undercut the market or that can be taken off the wall. I put together GET OFF!, the first contemporary art show at the Museum of Sex. All of these projects are born out of the same drive. It’s taking a concept or a series of beautiful ideas and then connecting them in a logical way. But then they become something else as they are completed by those who are invited. That’s so much of my working process. That’s what I did at dOCUMENTA.

CHRYSANNE:

In terms of the publishing your own artist books, do you feel that it is an empowering act for artists?

ROBIN:

Yes. Never wait to be invited anywhere. If you are waiting for the invitation, I guess you just want to go to the exclusive party. Empower yourself. Books have a different life than a painting or a sculpture or a discreet work of art because they have a much longer public life. They travel. A friend called me from Paris on Valentine’s Day because Sexual Lovemaking for Dummies was in a really hip boutique! Books take on a different life. And don’t we want to engage larger and larger audiences or participation? I mean, that’s why we’re artists. It’s an intellectual endeavor.

CHRYSANNE:

Going back to the beginning, your initiative publishing Dining in Refugee Camps is what lead you to dOCUMENTA. If you hadn’t been self-empowered, by working with these women….

ROBIN:

There’s no formula. Before dOCUMENTA, I presented Dining in Refugee Camps and my experience in the camps at colleges, art schools, anarchist bookstores—to virtually any group who invited me. Really, the whole idea of making a project at dOCUMENTA was about engaging with and learning from a larger and larger pool of people. It’s not like I’m just putting it out there, I get so much back.

CHRYSANNE:

I have one more question. When you first made the book in the refugee camp and you showed it to the women, what did they say?

ROBIN:

Actually, they were not that inviting at the beginning of the process. It was really tough getting into their homes and getting them to trust this project. A lot of them said: “What can you do for me and why am I letting you into my private space?” Into the kitchen is different than into the tent. I put the book together with materials and images that you could find in the camps—from piles of garbage, from food labels and from my photos of the families and their neighbors. It wasn’t until October of 2010 when Kirby brought the published books back to the camps and gave them to the families—when they saw their names, their surroundings, their portraits, their words honored—that everything clicked.

Now, the Cooperatives in the camps are using Dining in Refugee Camps as their textbook for teaching English. The book is about them and it is also out in the world beyond. It’s been a process but I think they are happy. And I am happy that you have acknowledged its significance and invited me to share my ideas within this singular forum about and by other women artists. Thank you Susan and Chrysanne.

Portrait of Robin Kahn in New York City, 2012 © by Susan Silas

2 thoughts on “A conversation with Robin Kahn

  1. Hi Robin
    Robin : You are so great! You did really a splendid work where nobody is interested to talk about the suffering of the Saharauis living in one of the most inhospitable area of the entire world called LEHMMADA. One can see how endless challenges by reading this interview have been facing you but also how brave you are to prove you are right and holding a noble message of those whose voice was extinguished unfairly.

    Khalil : a Saharaui participant at Robin tent in dOCUMENTA 13.

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